Who are Heidenheim, the Frank Schmidt-led club who have defied the odds to make it to the Bundesliga play-off?
Before the two-legged showdown on Thursday and Monday, the Bundesliga shines a spotlight on a club which was languishing down in Germany’s lower divisions when Bremen won the most recent of their four Bundesliga titles in 2004.
Heidenheim have a chance to compete in the Bundesliga for the very first time
in their history as they take on Werder Bremen in the relegation/promotion
A quick glance at Heidenheim’s official name – 1. FC Heidenheim 1846 – might suggest you were dealing with the oldest football club in the world, but the year is simply a nod to their earliest incarnation as a gymnastics club, some 20 years before association football was developed in England.
It wasn’t until 1910 that Heidenheim’s first proper football team was set up, by local engineers working for the Voith Group: VfB Heidenheim. Since then, the club has undergone a host of name changes and been part of several mergers, notably with TSB Heidenheim in 1972. Throughout the 20th century, in its various forms, the club played in Germany’s lower leagues, occasionally participating in the DFB Cup after winning their regional cup competition.
The modern-day Heidenheim was created in 2007 when the club’s football team split from the Heidenheimer Sportbund, a larger sporting association housing 24 departments. Not unlike Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig, Heidenheim’s success is very much a recent phenomenon, although the club has climbed the ranks without the significant financial investment enjoyed by the duo it hopes to join in the Bundesliga.
Still playing in the sixth-tier Verbandsliga in 2003/04, Heidenheim spent four seasons in the fifth-tier Oberliga before enjoying back-to-back promotions in 2008 and 2009. They were 3. Liga champions ahead of Leipzig in 2013/14, and, having since established themselves as a solid second-tier outfit, they now have their first shot at a historic inaugural promotion to the Bundesliga.
There can be little doubt about the man who has had the biggest influence on
Heidenheim’s rags-to-riches rise. Frank Schmidt took the reins of the club shortly after its restructuring in 2007 and has hardly looked back, masterminding three of the aforementioned promotions and guiding his side to five Württemberg Cup victories. He also led them to the quarter-finals of last season’s DFB Cup, where they came close to a stunning upset against eventual winners FC Bayern München in a barnstorming nine-goal thriller.
Not only was Schmidt born in Heidenheim, he even finished his modest playing career as captain of his hometown club, helping them climb into the Oberliga in the first of his four seasons as skipper. A few months after hanging up his boots, in September 2007, former boss Dieter Märkle was relieved of his duties and Schmidt was named interim head coach. Nearly 13 years later he is still in the Heidenheim hot seat, and boasts the unofficial title of the longest-serving manager in German professional football, ahead of Freiburg’s Christian Streich (appointed in December 2011). Club CEO Holger Sanwald has even joked that Schmidt can have “a lifetime contract”.
Having taken his side to the third tier, Schmidt completed his DFB training course in 2011 alongside current Cologne coach Markus Gisdol, former Bayer Leverkusen boss Roger Schmidt, and his friend Sven Mislintat – now sporting director of a VfB Stuttgart team who have already secured promotion to the Bundesliga for 2020/21. Mislintat even promised to send Schmidt and his team a “really good bottle of whiskey” after their crucial Matchday 33 win over Hamburg, which all but guaranteed Stuttgart’s return to the top flight.
However, he might choose to share that gift, as connecting with his players has been crucial to Schmidt’s success. Augsburg striker Florian Niederlechner spent two-and-a-half seasons with Heidenheim earlier in his career, and has described Schmidt as an “incredible person” who “knows how to talk to his players”. The 29-year-old really came into his own in his final season in Baden-Württemberg, scoring 15 goals to earn himself a move to the Bundesliga with Mainz. And he has just enjoyed his most prolific top-flight season to date, notching 13 goals and six assists to help ensure Augsburg’s safety.
In 2013, Schmidt was also one of three main protagonists in Aljoscha Pause’s
acclaimed documentary ‘Trainer!’ – now available on Netflix in several countries –exploring the challenges faced by young coaches in Germany. Jürgen Klopp was one of several more established managers who contributed to the film – and as Heidenheim have gained prominence in recent years, especially with that DFB Cup clash against Bayern, Schmidt has drawn comparisons with the former Borussia Dortmund and current Liverpool coach.
Both men began coaching where they ended their playing careers (Mainz, in Klopp’s case), both have a reputation for being close to their players, and both are renowned as tactically astute. Though Schmidt has yet to taste success on anything like the same scale as Klopp in Germany and England, taking a ‘Dorfklub’ (literally, “village club”) like Heidenheim from the fifth division to the Bundesliga would clearly be a sensational achievement.
If Schmidt is the general who has plotted Heidenheim’s rise up the divisions, then his chief on-field lieutenant is captain Marc “Schnatti” Schnatterer, who has been at the club almost as long: the 34-year-old winger and set-piece specialist joined from Karlsruher in the summer of 2008, when Heidenheim were still plying their trade down in the fourth tier.
Schnatterer and Schmidt’s excellent relationship has underpinned the club’s golden period of the past decade. A native of Heilbronn, situated around 90 miles west of Heidenheim, Schnatterer has been a regular source of goals over his 12 seasons with the club. Despite not being an out-and-out forward, he has hit double figures in seven of those campaigns and his tallies of 122 goals and 426 appearances are
both all-time club records.
With fan-favorite Schnatterer only netting twice in the current campaign,
Heidenheim’s main man in front of the goal has been Tim Kleindienst, who had already enjoyed a successful loan spell from Freiburg in 2016/17 and joined on a permanent basis ahead of 2019/20. The former Germany U20 international plundered a team-high 14 goals and provided six assists, with all but two of his league strikes coming in pairs.
Kleindienst literally translates to “small service”, but the 24-year-old showed his name can be deceiving with his immense contribution to Heidenheim’s third-placed finish. His best season for Freiburg came in 2017/18 when he played second fiddle to 15-goal top scorer Nils Petersen in a slightly wider and deeper role – but the campaign just gone has shown that he is capable of leading the line, and Bremen will certainly have to be wary of the threat he poses in the play-off.
At the other end of the pitch, goalkeeper Kevin Müller has proven one of the safest pairs of hands in Bundesliga 2, with Heidenheim boasting the second-best defensive record in the division (36 goals conceded, compared to 30 for champions Arminia Bielefeld). The 29-year-old, who won the U19 Bundesliga with boyhood club Hansa Rostock a decade ago, also kept 15 clean sheets this season, the most of any keeper in the second tier. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the club recently handed him a five-year contract extension.
Meanwhile, the key string-puller in midfield has been Niklas Dorsch, who raised a few eyebrows when he left the Bayern youth academy for Heidenheim in the summer of 2018. Considered one of the more promising youngsters at the record Bundesliga champions, he only made a solitary senior outing against Eintracht Frankfurt, in April 2018, although that was enough to score his first top-flight goal and earn a Bundesliga winner’s medal.
The ex-captain of the Bayern reserves soon made his mark in Heidenheim, with the club’s fans choosing him as their Player of the Season at the end of his first campaign – which concluded with an impressive fifth-place finish. Having honed his sharp technique and an even sharper will to win in Bavaria, the 22-year-old has since emerged as arguably the best defensive midfielder in Bundesliga 2.
As well as leading his side in terms of dribbles, long passes and successful tackles, Heidenheim’s midfield metronome has demonstrated a remarkable ability to think on his feet and squeeze out of tight spots – no doubt he picked up a few tricks training with the likes of Thiago and Joshua Kimmich over at Säbener Straße.
How they reached the play-off
Heidenheim didn’t get off to the best start in 2019/20, despite an opening-day win over VfL Osnabrück. A winless run of four games saw them sink to 11th, before successive victories over Holstein Kiel and Darmstadt pushed them back up to fourth. They never dropped out of the top seven from that point onwards, and a solid run through the autumn – including wins over promotion rivals Hannover and Hamburg – left them fourth over the winter break.
The seven games between the January restart and the coronavirus-enforced break were a mixed bag: three wins, two draws, and two defeats. Heading into the two-month hiatus, Heidenheim were three points behind third-placed Hamburg with an inferior goal difference. And they hardly made the ideal comeback in May, going down 3-0 to VfL Bochum to slip four points off the play-off spot.
Wins over Wehen Wiesbaden and Erzgebirge Aue kept them in the hunt, but
another loss to Hannover in early June meant they were still two points shy of third place with four games to go. Kleindienst hit his sixth brace of the season as they bounced back with a 4-1 win over Jahn Regensburg, and despite a goalless draw with Greuther Fürth the following week, they went into their big Matchday 33 clash with Hamburg knowing a win would push them up to third, and leave their destiny in their own hands on the final day.
Things didn’t seem to be going Heidenheim’s way when Leverkusen loanee Joel Pohjanpalo put Hamburg ahead 17 seconds into the second half, but the game was turned on its head in a dramatic finale. On 80 minutes, HSV defender Jordan Beyer scored an own goal under pressure from Kleindienst, before three Heidenheim substitutes combined for a 95th-minute winner: Schnatterer fed the ball to Stefan Schimmer, who teed up Konstantin Kerschbaumer for an all-important winner with the last kick of the game.
That, as it turned out, was that, as both Heidenheim and Hamburg lost on the final day of the season. Schmidt’s men were swept aside by champions Bielefeld, while Hamburg, needing a draw, were stunned 5-1 at home to Sandhausen. There was a sense of a favor being returned after the final day in 2018/19 when Heidenheim defeated Ingolstadt to ensure that Sandhausen stayed up.
Either way, founding Bundesliga members and six-time German champions Hamburg missed their opportunity to return to the top flight following a first-ever relegation in 2018. Instead, Heidenheim will try to seal a first-ever promotion as they face Bremen on Thursday and Monday.
Can they do it?
The two sides have already played each other this season, in the second round of the DFB Cup, and a rather one-sided encounter it was too: Bremen were quickly out of sight, with Milot Rashica, Leonardo Bittencourt, Davy Klaassen and Marco Friedl all on target in the first half. Schnatterer got a consolation from the penalty spot just before the break, but the damage was done and the Green-Whites marched on with a 4-1 win.
That being said, Heidenheim should still fancy their chances against a side who needed a great escape to avoid outright Bundesliga relegation on Matchday 34, with their 6-1 win over Cologne and Fortuna Düsseldorf’s 3-0 defeat at the hands of Union Berlin allowing Florian Kohfeldt’s side to scrape into the play-off spot. This is a team, after all, who lost 19 games this term – including 12 at home – and conceded a whopping 69 goals.
Heidenheim have shown that they can turn it on when it counts – as Saturday’s DFB Cup finalists Leverkusen found out in last season’s competition when they were stunned by the second-tier side in the last 16. But for their individual quality, 10- man FC Bayern might have suffered the same fate in the quarters, but a brace off the bench from Robert Lewandowski spared the Bavarian giants’ blushes in a memorable 5-4 victory.
Bremen are by no means unbeatable, yet a play-off win for Schmidt’s underdogs would still be a seismic event, on a par with Unterhaching reaching the Bundesliga in the late 1990s. History is certainly on the side of four-time German champions Bremen, who have only been relegated once in the Bundesliga era: since the playoff was reintroduced in 2008/09, only three of the 11 second-tier clubs involved have made it into the big time.
Should Heidenheim upset the odds and join Bielefeld and Stuttgart in the
Bundesliga next year, they will play host to their opponents at the Voith-Arena, which has a capacity of just 15,000 – one-fifth the size of Bayern’s Allianz Arena. It would unsurprisingly become the smallest venue in the top flight, even cozier than Union Berlin’s 22,000-seater Stadion An der Alten Försterei – although as the capital club proved when they won the relegation play-off against Stuttgart the last term, and with eight victories on home soil in 2019/20, a bite-sized backyard can sometimes be all the more intimidating for unsuspecting visitors.
What they’re saying
“It’s an incredible opportunity. The Bundesliga would be absolutely amazing, but I’m no dreamer: we have to do good work and show a lot of passion for over 180 minutes. It’s clear who the favorites are, but we have to do everything we can to ensure that doesn’t matter over the two games. Werder Bremen will take the game seriously, and have the right attitude. They won’t underestimate us for a second,” Frank Schmidt on the upcoming play-off against Werder Bremen.
“Marc Schnatterer sums up the last decade: he’s a key player, our captain, the
ultimate leader. The way he’s handled things, with his team talks and his
communication with the coaching staff – well, without wanting to kiss his behind, it’s been exemplary and deserves credit. I hope we reach the Bundesliga more for him than for myself,” Schmidt on club captain Marc Schnatterer.
“It’s a shame our fans couldn’t be here today. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if there had been 15,000 spectators. They would probably have demolished the stadium!” Schnatterer after the decisive 2-1 win over Hamburg on Matchday 33.